SO YOU BOUGHT A GRAPPLE SAW, NOW WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THAT WOOD

The influx of knuckle-boom cranes and boom-mounted grapple saws has drastically reduced the time and labor it takes to cut down a tree. In theory, tree care companies employing this equipment have more business, higher profits and safer working conditions. But they also have even more wood debris to manage on top of the volumes they were already generating. This could be both a problem and an opportunity.

Some of DJ’s Tree Service’s equipment at its processing site.
Some of DJ’s Tree Service’s equipment at its processing site. Photo courtesy of DJ’s Tree Service.

“Getting the tree down is no longer the problem, managing the wood waste is. ‘Now what do I do with all this volume?’” says Dan Mayer, owner of Mayer Tree Service, a 32-year TCIA member company based in Essex, Massachusetts.

Mayer brought the Sennebogen tree handler to the U.S. from Germany in 2015. The machine was and is a game changer, according to Mayer, as a self-propelled unit with a telescoping stick boom fitted with a hydraulic grapple saw to grasp, cut and remove limbs or whole trees in a single operation. Paired up with a grinder, it is a mobile debris production/reduction facility. Mayer now has three of them, two of which are in almost continual operation, while the third is kept as backup to keep operations running if one of the other two needs service.

“Like other companies with this equipment, never before have we been able to cut trees so cheaply and so profitably,” says Mayer.

But the proliferation of these and other knuckle-boom cranes and boom-mounted grapple saws means that managing an ever-growing volume of wood waste is an issue for many companies. And the solution in most cases is buying more equipment.

“Very few people are aware of how much material we are dealing with. You have to protect your market, but you also have to get rid of waste and make some money with moving it,” says Mayer. “You can’t just store it all. It’s a necessity that we have to move it. Thousands of truckloads are coming in per year. As a tree company grows, more fiber is coming in the door. When will tree companies grasp that they will have to manage it and not rely on others?” Mayer poses.

“The small guys got catapulted into the future. You have to make sure you have allies who will take it (the logs and other debris) from you, otherwise you are driving great distances, cutting into skilled tree-work time,” Mayer says.

Mayer Tree Service operates a 40-acre processing site for its debris from tree care operations.
Mayer Tree Service operates a 40-acre processing site for its debris from tree care operations. Tamsin Venn photo.

Managing large volumes of debris

Mayer is working on solutions. About a decade ago, he set up a separate company, ProBark, and invested in a 40-acre property in Plaistow, New Hampshire, just over the Massachusetts border, to manage biomass and debris. The location even has a railroad spur for possible future transportation use.

Mayer crews work within an hour or so of the company’s home base in northeastern Massachusetts but have satellite locations at which they can dump and partially process debris from their operations. It is then collected and brought in 120-cubic-yard tractor trailer trucks to be further processed in Plaistow.

Between the wood waste generated from Mayer’s tree-work operations and the two crews he has doing just tree removals with his Sennebogen machines, he is processing huge volumes of debris, he says. While he will provide grinding services for municipalities and other clients, the debris he processes at the ProBark facility is almost all generated by his own company’s operations.

DJ’s Tree Service’s Sennebogen tree handler dismantling a tree.
DJ’s Tree Service’s Sennebogen tree handler dismantling a tree. Courtesy of DJ’s Tree Service.

Land and equipment

To work successfully, debris management requires several variables, Mayer notes. One is owning land to store and process the material. Often the material needs to stay and age or wait until a market opens up.

“If you are going to have a tree company you need to own the land,” he says. Twice, the land he was renting was sold for housing developments and he had to move.

Another requirement is having the ability to purchase top-rated equipment, including backups. “Down time is a killer; one machine is always ready to go,” says Mayer.

For him, this added equipment includes large trucks for moving the logs and other debris, as well as grinders for reducing and processing debris into saleable products such as colored mulch. It also includes front-end loaders and conveyors to stack and move the mulch and trailer trucks to transport debris between satellite operations and the processing facility, and then to move product out to customers.

Then there are storage sheds, maintenance shops and fuel depots to store the diesel that powers the fleet.

“Transportation is another killer. You’ve got to get the product to its market,” says Mayer.

So buying the knuckle-boom or grapple saw is not the end in most cases, but only the beginning of the mechanization needed to handle tree debris.

Processing

One new tool Mayer uses is a scanner from Loadscan Limited, a New Zealand-company, that uses radar to measure the cubic volume of a truck while the truck passes under it at speeds as fast as 30 mph. “More people worldwide are using this,” says Mayer.

“When the logs come in on our trucks, we will separate the logs. Hardwood gets chipped, while some logs get separated for saw logs and go off to a hardwood or softwood lumber mill,” he says.

Chipped hardwood also goes to pellet mills in New Hampshire and Maine. The carefully orchestrated recycle/reuse operation shifts tempo according to material that comes in, the season and how much aging process is needed for the mulch to decompose. Time and space are a must, Mayer says.

Mayer uses Albach chippers, and a horizontal grinder sold to him by Art Murphy with High Ground Equipment, a Terex CBI distributor conveniently located just down the road. “It’s like a big cheese grater,” Murphy says of the processing. “You have screens and, depending on the hole in the screen, it will give you what size product you want. It hammers the wood and grinds it to a fine mulch or something coarser.”

That capability helps support what Mayer likes to term his boutique market, “We are by no means a big player in the mulch market.”

Today, Gaston Tree Debris Recycling has about a dozen sites around the country and recycles about 700,000 tons a year
In 1972, Bill Gaston started Gaston’s Tree Service LLC, now a 24-year TCIA member company based in Gainesville, Florida. In the early 1980s, he started Gaston Tree Debris Recycling after a government mandate stating that tree waste could no longer be stored in landfills. Today, Gaston Tree Debris Recycling has about a dozen sites around the country and recycles about 700,000 tons a year using 16 Morbark grinders, including the tub grinder shown above. Photo courtesy of Gaston Tree.

The salad bowl

Mayer likes to call the processing facility his salad bowl. Take a few carrots (hardwood), mix it in with some chips, put it through the grinder, screen out other elements and voila, a Caesar salad, aka mulch, made to order for the customer.

“Right here we are deconstructing the salad and pulling out the carrots, and sometimes we’re putting things in. Over there we slice the hardwood,” he says, pointing to various piles and machines at work on his Plaistow property. Logs go into the grinder, the ground wood is screened by a Komptech screener, fines are separated and out comes mulch. It can then be colored or processed further, depending on the intended end use.

Brush and leaves are ground and stored separately, creating small mountains that are aged into compost before being sold as a custom soil product.

Local market is key

Like Mayer, DJ’s Tree Service, a 28-year TCIA member company based in Colchester, Vermont, does tree trimming and pruning, tree removal, as well as logging and land clearing. And, like Mayer, it has invested in some of the newer equipment to take down and process trees, both a wheeled and a tracked Sennebogen, a CBI horizontal grinder, and a Vermeer whole tree chipper to name a few. With the larger equipment and increased tree material, they also invested in multiple tractor trailer trucks to move and haul material and equipment.

“We can generate hundreds of tons of material in a week just on removal projects,” says Jacob Myers, who oversees the company’s business development and waste-wood yard. “Our Sennebogens generate a lot more material, due to the nature of the machines and process. It’s less marketable in terms of logs and firewood, since you have to take the tree down in a certain way.”

DJ’s Tree Service uses a towable Vermeer whole-tree chipper, which Myers says is more of a forestry machine than a roadside chipper. For processing large tree trunks, they bought a CBI log and stump screw to break the logs and stumps down to fit in the whole-tree chipper or CBI horizontal grinder. On the wish list is an Albach chipper and another grinder.

The company sells bulk wood chips to a large biomass facility. It also makes a wood-chip playground mulch and sells bark mulch to contractors and mulch retailers. It makes a composted topsoil from the material removed after grinding stumps and other organic tree material. DJ’s Tree Service also buys bark stripped from logs, such as hemlock and pine, at local lumber mills and uses it to make their all-natural bark mulch products.

A Mayer Tree Albach chipper fills a truck at a job site.
A Mayer Tree Albach chipper fills a truck at a job site. TCIA staff photo.

Shifting gears

Myers and his two siblings are taking over the day-to-day management from their parents, Lisa and Jim Myers, who started the company 50 years ago. “We all handle everything together. Our sister, Jessica, leads the office, and our brother, Bobby, heads our field operations,” says Myers.

Call it new energy meets new technology, but the company’s revenue has grown double digits every year for the past four years. Myers says buying the new equipment “was a huge thing for us, that sets us apart,” adding, “It made us competitive on the roadside work.

“The biggest factor of our success and growth is our company culture, built around taking care of each other and taking care of our community. We have the most professional and dedicated team of 23 full-time employees and we have people reaching out weekly wanting to join our team,” says Myers. That interest, he adds, is “due to the amazing culture and team as well as the top-of-the-line equipment we invest in to make the work safer, more efficient and easier on the body.”

After a climber was out with an injury, the Myers family drilled down on how to make the jobs safer and easier, and that was why they looked at the mechanized equipment for taking down trees. “It’s safer work when using fewer people; fewer people are climbing and working at elevation, and you are processing a much higher volume of material,” says Myers.

“As long as you take care of the equipment, you don’t have to worry about a call-out. The machine shows up for work every day, especially when you have a great mechanic like we do! It is definitely the way the industry is headed, because a lot of the technology is getting to be so useful. It’s a no-brainer,” he says.

Myers notes that, with having the large biomass facility taking its fiber, the company is set for marketing wood waste. But should that resource falter, “The first thing we would look into is wood pellets for home heating as a way to reuse the material. (Think cold northern Vermont winters.) “Ideally, we don’t ever want to have to dump material into a landfill. Currently, we generate zero waste,” Myers says.

A Bandit Beast horizontal grinder creates chips at Bunyon Bros.
A Bandit Beast horizontal grinder creates chips at Bunyon Bros. Photo courtesy of Bunyon Bros

Cranes and loaders

Bunyon Bros., an 18-year TCIA member company based in San Luis Obispo, California, was one of the first tree care companies in the state to achieve zero waste, and efficient wood-waste management continues, as the company fine-tunes the end product with the help of recent technology.

“We have cranes, backhoes with grapples, excavators, dozers, skid steers, etc. just about every funny little toy you can imagine,” says Ronald Rinell, company owner. “We normally use the crane. It’s not really the old-fashioned way.”

Bunyon Bros. currently uses a Manitex boom-truck crane, Rinell notes. “Our people are super efficient with it. Some of our crew members have been with us for 20 years. Today, one wrecking crew did a $5,000 job in four hours.”

The company distributes wood chips for Fibar, a New York-based playground surfacing company, one of the largest in the world, according to Rinell. One piece of equipment it uses is a Bandit Beast horizontal grinder. “We worked with Bandit to create a chip that comes out of these with the correct size. We can load a 30-inch log and out comes certified, engineered playground chips,” says Rinell.

“The grinder helps us clear out large areas quickly, and also allows us to continue being complete green-waste recyclers by turning trees and branches removed into usable wood chips and mulch,” he says.
It also “gives us more diversity on what we can do to create a better solution for disposing our green waste, so we’re making playground chips as well as ground cover for landscaping and for weed abatement and moisture control. We make colored chips used in landscaping for custom homes,” says Rinell.

Locations designated to specific tasks

Bunyon Bros. also has a firewood location and a log milling operation. It delivers wood directly from the job to its green-waste recycling yard. The company works under Cal Recycle, and the state gives the company quarterly inspections. “We can only have 12,000 cubic yards or less in our yard. We take temperature specs all the time, and are closely monitored,” says Rinell of tough California regulations.

Rinell says he will probably get a grapple-saw crane eventually, but he still places great store in the power of the crane and backhoe. “Everything we touch is reused and recycled, even the palms, which avocado operations love for moisture control and ground cover,” he states.

J & J Brothers LLC operates four Sennebogen Tree Handlers.
J & J Brothers LLC operates four Sennebogen Tree Handlers. Photo courtesy of J & J Brothers LLC.

It’s all about safety

Despite a rapid growth spurt, J & J Brothers LLC in Meriden, Connecticut, a first year TCIA member company, is finding local wood disposal options that meet its needs. Joseph Carabetta started the company in 2017 in Meriden with his brother, John, hence the name. They brought on their sister, CeCe (Cecelia) as managing member in 2020 and became a WBE (Women Business Enterprise).

The brothers began the company with a pickup truck and a few chain saws. John was out in the field. In 2018, they advanced to one bucket truck and one regular truck. They tried a little demolition here and there and land clearing, then started bidding on and winning municipal contracts, according to CeCe, who manages the office staff and does some bids.

As the business accelerated, so did the tools of the trade. They added four Sennebogens, two Albach mobile chippers and several other pieces of equipment. The company’s next purchase will be a track chipper.

Armed with all that high-performing equipment, they landed a state contract from Connecticut for side-highway clearing – to make roads safe – following a “lot of studying and a little bit of luck,” says Joseph. “We bought equipment with no immediate purpose, made some investments and had to have a little bit of guts.” They also now have a contract with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The mobile chippers allow them to grind the wood right off the highways from the 30-foot clear zone. “We take the wood from the highway, run it right through the chipper and take it to a facility where they burn it for energy or turn it into mulch,” says Joseph Carabetta.

“On each job, we usually have two to three trucks hauling debris,” adds CeCe.

They make firewood with the whole logs they haul in. They also offload wood debris to various recycling or composting operations and have a few of their own holding stations. The demand is there, Joseph notes, particularly on a mulch level, but he still wishes there were more markets for the material locally.

Safety the key

At the end of the day, it’s not all about money, it’s all about safety, according to Joseph Carabetta. “The way these machines are designed, you are working at a distance away from the tree when you cut it, move it and put it down. It’s just a safe process.” However, he says, “They’re expensive tools. From a bucket truck to this type of machine? It’s a leap, 10 times the investment.”

“We are finding it to be a more efficient and safer way to run the operation of vegetation management, not necessarily in terms of money,” says Joseph. “It’s not ‘Buy these machines and everything is the golden ticket.’ Maintenance, upkeep, breakdowns, repairs, all that adds up.”

Tamsin Venn is founding publisher of Atlantic Coastal Kayaker magazine and author of the book “Sea Kayaking Along the New England Coast,” and has been a contributing writer to TCI Magazine since 2011. She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

1 Comment

  1. This is a fantastic article, genius to bring this machine to the United States by Dan Mayer. Safety is the key. Very proud of all of your hard work to master this process and pass along in our country. I am extremely grateful as my sons and daughter run J&J operations.

    With much more continued successes. God Bless always.

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